Church nativity scenes

Church nativity scenes

Several months ago, I posted my Neighbours blog post onto Facebook with the pithy status, “I’m on TV! Sort of.” I thought it was pithy, anyway.

Jeff Hobbs, apart from being a Facebook friend, is producer of Channel Ten’s Mass For You At Home. He replied to the post with an offer to really appear on TV.

So I find myself, in January, preparing homilies for Trinity Sunday and the Feast of Corpus Christi. The two masses will be recorded tomorrow, though they won’t be broadcast until May and June.

Filming starts early, so I’m staying in Melbourne overnight, at St Mary Star of the Sea – my favourite “largest parish church in Australia.” (You might be surprised how many churches claim this title – each justified by compelling criteria!)

A Warrnambool reader visited St Mary’s before Christmas, and suggested I blog about the church’s impressive nativity scene. Not a bad idea, which I’m doing just in the nick of time, as Christmastide draws to a close.

When St Mary’s was restored a few years, the nativity set was also restored. Some sage some where congratulated the priests on the parish’s prized nativity set, which he sourced to nineteenth-century Italy. The priests, having no reason to doubt the tale, were suitably impressed.

It’s worth noting that the priests at St Mary’s are priests of Opus Dei. Their priestly ministry is centred predominantly on schools, universities, and catechetical centres. None of them had ministered in a parish before their assignment to West Melbourne.

Perhaps if they had, they would have recognised that their rare nineteenth-century figures are in fact a dime a dozen in parishes all over Australia. Off the top of my head, I can name three other places with the same nativity set: the Carmelite Convent in Kew; Infant Jesus in Koroit; and St Joseph’s in Tweed Heads. These figures were mass-produced in the mid-twentieth century, and they’re about as rare as hen’s beaks.

Undaunted, Fr Joe Pich resolved to make them something unique anyway. So he assembled a team of parishioners and proceeded to build an Australian woolshed to house the figures:

2009 Nativity closeup

Nativity 2009 longshot

Every year since, the nativity scene has been bigger and better. This year’s crib featured a fully functional windmill, and an antique tap water feature. The ox and donkey and sheep were accompanied by wallabies, a kookaburra, a wombat and an echidna. The Maji no longer crowd the woolshed – they’ve expanded into a neighbouring chapel, with its own backdrop:

westmelb-short

westmelb-long

Who knows what improvements lie in wait next year? I’ve taken photos of a few other nativity scenes to conjure ideas. Not Hamilton regrettably. It was gone before I thought to!

Here is the nativity scene at Nazareth House, in Ballarat:

nazareth-long

nazareth-close

It’s a different scale, obviously. But I do like that ecclesiastical figure on our right. He’s holding a bag, and in the bag there is a slot for people to deposit their Christmas offerings. Much better than the grim money box chained to St Mary’s marble altar rail!

(Did you notice that the baby Jesus is covered by a wool blanket? I would never think to do that. But the Sisters of Nazareth did. I’d call that the feminine touch.)

Finally, here are some photos of the nativity scene at St Mary’s, Keilor Downs.

keilordowns-2

keilordowns-1

Again, it’s a different sort of display to St Mary’s, West Melbourne, but it does serve to illustrate that there is no limit to the number of figures in a nativity scene. The sky’s the limit!